By Sean McAdam
CLEVELAND -- In the course of analyzing the Cleveland Indians' approach to Josh Beckett Tuesday night, manager Terry Francona indirectly got to the real cause of the Red Sox' 3-1 defeat to the Indians, their fourth in a row to begin the season.
"Give them credit," said Francona. "They did a really good job grinding out at-bats. They did it better than we did."
Indeed, while Beckett was needing 106 pitches to get through five innings, Josh Tomlin pitched seven innings and needed only 91 pitches. While Beckett labored through some at-bats that appeared endless, Tomlin enjoyed three innings in which he faced just three hitters and one other in which he faced four.
From the third inning through the eighth, the Sox collected just one hit -- a leadoff single by Dustin Pedroia in the fourth quickly erased by a double-play from Adrian Gonzalez one hitter later. The Sox didn't get another hit until Pedroia added a one-out single in the ninth.
Boston had just three baserunners in scoring position all evening.
It wasn't hard to figure out what was going on. After being outscored 26-11 in Texas last weekend, Red Sox hitters evidently tried to get it all back with one at-bat.
Gone was the careful approach with which the Red Sox usually operate, wearing down the opposing pitcher by working the count and forcing him to throw the ball over the middle of the plate.
Instead, an impatient Sox' attack was overly aggressive, resulting in ground balls being pounded into the infield or hit meekly into the air. The same lineup which scored 10 runs in the first two games in Texas has now been limited to just two runs in the last 20 innings.
The starting pitching, which failed to keep them in the first two games has gradually gotten somewhat better. The offense, meanwhile, has unmistakably gotten worse.
If it's not one thing, it's another.
"We're swinging at stuff out of the zone," acknowledged Pedroia. "We're anxious. Everyone wants to do good. That's what happens when you see a lot of check swings."
Gonzalez, who has cooled after piling up five hits in the first two games, pled guilty to impatience after an 0-for-4 night.
"We did a really poor job of being selective and getting good pitches to hit," he said. "We're just going to have to get better at that."
Francona has tried juggling the lineup with little to show for his shuffling. He stuck with Jarrod Saltalamacchia, who had been hitless over the first three games with 10 strikeouts, and was rewarded with a run-scoring single in the catcher's first at-bat.
But the middle third of the Boston lineup -- Gonzalez, Kevin Youkilis and David Ortiz -- was a combined 0-for-9 with three walks.
Six of Boston's regulars are hitting under .200 through the first four games.
Were this the middle of the season, the offensive skid could be written off as the byproduct of a long season, part of the natural ebb and flow of the 162- game grind. Nothing to see here folks, move along.
But because the slump is happening in the first week of a season in which expectations are almost impossibly high, the problem gets magnified. Correspondingly, the players, eager to turn things around, grind their bats into sawdust rather than grinding out at-bats.
Then there's some plain bad luck. In the ninth, with a hint of life against closer Chris Perez -- first and third with two outs -- Ortiz flicked a liner toward the left field foul line. But the Indians had Austin Kearns inexplicably shaded that way and Kearns needed only to take a couple of steps to stab the ball for the final out.
"I put a good swing on it," shrugged Ortiz. "There's nothing much you can do about it. I was surprised the left fielder was playing there. He got there easily. I guess that was one of those magical moments coaches who position fielders get right. What else can you do? Nothing. I did what I was supposed to do - put a good swing on the ball. That's about it."
The lineup is too good to continue failing like this. Ortiz and Gonzalez knocked in 100 runs each last year and Youkilis undoubtedly would have reached that milestone too had he not missed time with a thumb injury. Crawford gives the Sox another athletic table-setter to go with Jacoby Ellsbury and Pedroia.
"When you're facing this kind of situation," said Ortiz, "you definitely want to get the first one out of the way. That's how things get started. Everybody's trying; probably some of us are trying too hard. That's baseball, though - you want to make things happen."
Right now, however, they're not. And everybody knows it.
Pedroia predicted that the onslought is coming. The lineup can't be bottled up for ever.
"Once we settle in though, it's going to be good," vowed Pedroia. "It's going to be good stuff."
But just four games into the season, the losses and the frustration mounting, time is of the essence.